Consumer concern about health and health-care costs could stimulate new agricultural research and production if federal policymakers grasp the opportunity in the drafting the 2007 Farm Bill and public anti-science sentiments can be overcome.

Those messages highlighted talks by Neal Van Alfen, dean of the University of California, Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, to agriculture officials from Canada, France, and the United Kingdom visiting California in early June.

The small group of about two dozen dignitaries was touring northern California on June 4-6 to learn about bio-energy from agriculture and to see plant collections at UC Davis managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Kawamura and Van Alfen spoke at a dinner for the visitors at USDA’s Western Human Nutrition Research Center, located at UC Davis. Center director Lindsey Allen provided an overview of current obesity studies, research on phytonutrients, and the cutting-edge technology used to study metabolism.

“We see that agriculture and food issues are going to be driven heavily and highly by the consumers much more in the future than they have been in the past,” Van Alfen said. “The thing that is of most interest to consumers today is health.”

Van Alfen explained how new campus-wide research centers are studying the linkages between how food is grown, produced, and processed and how each component contributes to or detracts from human health. “It’s a comprehensive program that also includes human genomics and plant genomics,” he said. “It’s very challenging but is driven by a vision for how our health in the future will be controlled not through intervention after we become ill but through how we eat and what we eat.”

Kawamura also addressed the nutrition crisis. “It’s not malnutrition from lack of eating,” he said. “It’s malnutrition from overeating. I look at those as both symptoms – obesity is a symptom as much as hunger and deficiency problems that come out of anemia or osteoporosis. Those are all symptoms that come out of malnutrition. We have a tremendous challenge there.”

He noted how only three percent of the projected $2.2 trillion (2007) spent on health care in the United States is devoted to prevention and wellness. “It’s a big problem,” Kawamura said. “The best investment is prevention. The best investment is turning that whole scenario around over time.”

Farm Bill nutrition programs offer an opportunity to stimulate demand for healthy choices that would help change eating habits and be good for California agriculture. “We produce over 50 percent of the nation’s supply of domestically produced fruits, vegetables and nuts,” Kawamura said. “If our nation increases its consumption from three servings to the prescribed six servings per day, that’s a 100 percent increase in consumption. We’d like that kind of demand driving our systems. That would be good.”

Kawamura also expressed concern about anti-science attitudes that threaten agriculture and research. “We see it more and more – the lack of respect for the scientific community, the fear of the scientific community, the lack of understanding of what science is attempting to do, what it’s been trying to do, what its mission is,” he said. “In that lack of support, that lack of understanding, come some really significant challenges for all of us.”

Kawamura read from a speech by Henry Wallace, U.S. secretary of agriculture during the Great Depression. “‘When science fails to furnish effective leadership, men will exalt demagogues and science will have to bow down to them or keep silent,’” he said.

“I have to tell you that’s exactly what I see occurring right now because we need you folks in the science community, not those of us in the political world, not those in other industry worlds,” Kawamura added. “We need the science community to really step forward. The University of California, Davis, and the UC system at large – all the universities of this world – really have to start thinking about making sure that there’s a story out there that is being told and, more importantly, is being understood.”

Kawamura also mentioned the importance of supporting research on issues such as invasive species and adjusting to global climate change. “Unpredictable weather means unpredictable harvests,” he said. “Higher temperatures, higher humidity means higher incidence of diseases and insect activity. Those aren’t easy things to deal with. We’re going to need the research to help us have the tools to deal with adaptation at its most critical level because we don’t have the luxury to make a lot of mistakes globally in the way we deal with agriculture.”

“The research is critical,” he concluded. “It’s not a time to back away from what a Farm Bill might be. It’s a time that you have to invest.”

Media contact(s): John Stumbos, (530) 754-4979, jdstumbos@ucdavis.edu